Collecting the Art of Bamboo

What I find moving about Japanese bamboo art is its natural beauty, and the way it appears:  as humble, almost shy, delicate, and graceful as the landscape fabric of Japan itself. It is not as powerful as lacquer or influential as ceramics, but it is captivating and appealing in an extraordinary way. No less than 500 different species of this indigenous plant are available across Japan, and Its history dates back to ancient times. Bamboo has been traditionally used to weave everyday objects, such as baskets, furniture, utensils, vessels, and boxes for storage, found in every Japanese household.

Beginning in the mid-century years, new generations of Japanese creative artisans of technical mastery, some of whom designated ‘Living National Treasure,’ have expanded the craft of bamboo, taking it to new horizons. They utilize elevated skills to create radical works of art, which stand on the line between textile, architecture, and sculpture, largely collected in America and Europe. The art of bamboo continues to grow with some fresh and unexpected ideas, art installations, and sculptural work at the heart of Japan leading artists.

To learn about the rich world of contemporary Japanese bamboo art, and how to ‘read’ and collect it, I have invited Margo Thoma of TAI Modern, the Santa-Fe-based gallery, to speak in the program ‘Collecting Design’ this week. The gallery, dedicated to bamboo art, has been committed to build international careers for its 30-something artists, considered the world’s premier representative of contemporary Japanese bamboo art for over two decades.

We learnt from Thoma that the craft of bamboo is unique in the way that it is passed between generations, that it takes decades to acquire the skills and techniques of harvesting, processing, splitting, and weaving required for practicing. That most artists weave while sitting on the floor, and the majority of them reside far from urban areas, and that their life commitment to their art is astonishing. It is easy to get hooked by the remarkable objects of bamboo art; when you start learning them, you can immediately recognize distinctive languages, expressions, the multi different ways of handling the material. One of the artists represented by TAI Modern, Tanabe Chikuunsai IV, a fourth-generation bamboo artist, based in Osaka, created an enormous installation entitled ‘The Gate’ for an exhibition at the Met a couple of years ago. I believe that this show and the installation attached to it have brought Japanese bamboo art to the conscious of the public in New York.

This morning, we learnt that we cannot overlook this art, that we should support the artists, enabling them to keep practicing the tradition, and at the same time to create fantastic creations out of one humble plant. Thank you, Margo Thoma, for introducing the collectible art of bamboo. All images courtesy TAI ModernAbove: Work by ​Yufu Shohaku.

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Tanabe installation is “Connection – Origin,” installation at TAI Modern, 2019.

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Nakatomi Hajime

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Fujinuma Noboru

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